Unconvincing arguments for music education

In the debates over the place of music in education a range of arguments are put forward as to why music education should be a mandatory component of every child’s schooling.  Most of these arguments are unpersuasive, as it turns out;  the proof of this bold assertion is in the fact that most children’s music education is cursory, peripheral, or non-existent in all but the very best-resourced schools.

The first argument that really underpins most pleas for music education for all children is that music is good.  Not that it is good for you (that would be a utilitarian argument) but rather that it is good in and of itself, and by virtue of this all children should be educated in music.  [This is the educational equivalent of believing that music is not about anything, that it is about itself, or that it about nothing, and this was certainly the dominant view in academia for much of the second half of the twentieth century.]

The problem with first asserting the goodness of music, and then demanding its inclusion in the curriculum on the basis of this assertion, is that not everyone necessarily agrees that music is simply in and of itself a Good Thing.  That’s not to say that music is seen as a Bad Thing, but rather just as a Thing, along with all the other Things that humans make, do and enjoy. This puts music in the same macro-category as roller-blading, cake-decorating, chess, finger-painting and bingo.

Hmm.  On that basis we can’t expect primary schools to devote all that much time to music education, surely?

Another common argument is that music is the one art form common to all human civilisations (no matter how small each ‘civilisation’ might be).  Now this argument has inherent within it a lot more promise than the simple declaration of the goodness of music, mostly because, in the flat-earth, globalised community we find ourselves a part of, music easily takes on a mantle of ‘unifying force for humanity’ in the public imagination.  Look only to the public concerts that raise record amounts of money for victims (local and global) of bush fires, tsunamis and famine.

But this argument begins to unravel as soon as the public imagination takes hold of it; passive consumption of music appears to require no particular education, so why should the commonality of music across human expression imply a need to educate children in music?  It is easy to assume that music is an innate aspect of being human, rather than a mental discipline like mathematics, or an employment pre-requisite like reading.

The third frequently used, but ultimately unconvincing, argument for mandatory music education all children is that music improves performances in specific types of mathematical thinking.  This argument is unconvincing partly because the research does not support a blanket more music= better maths equation.  But, in a community which distrusts experts, this is not the primary reason for the public to not quite buy into this rationale.  At the end of the day, this argument doesn’t really ring 100% true in popular thinking because the major narratives we associate with musicians have absolutely no connection to the narratives we associate with mental arithmetic (book-keepers), statistics and probabilities (actuaries and analysts) or spatial reasoning (engineers).  It seems unreasonably counter-intuitive to the general public that music assists the development of skills that build better bridges and calculate larger tax returns.

These three arguments are never going to produce a real change in the political debate or the educational culture, and it’s high time musician-educators stopped bringing them into play.  These unconvincing arguments clutter the conversation, and prevent us from looking at what our students and children are missing out on when they don’t get a musical education.

6 thoughts on “Unconvincing arguments for music education

  1. Thanks Elissa,
    Music departments often have to justify their existence by bringing in all these extra arguments. Regardless, I have read various studies in neurology about brain imaging, and music is the one area which seems to stimulate the entire circuit! The other thing about singing in choirs, is that it has shown to release significant endorphins promoting positive mental health and well-being. Furthermore, some recent asthma studies have shown that 20% of asthma is caused by constriction of the vocal chords in MRI studies. The solution – vocal exercises used by choirs!
    That’s just a few extra thoughts, but like you I actually believe that no area of the Arts should be excluded or perhaps promoted above another.
    Helen O’Brien

  2. Go You, Elissa.

    The beauty of having music appreciation or ability for example is that one can land in a country with no prior knowledge of the language spoken, yet sit amongst a group of musicians and play a piece…together..

    I’m a big believer in whole brain learning, why leave out music? That’s just preposterous.
    *gets out tapping sticks and egg shakers*

  3. Thanks for the read; I like your ideas but I’m not sure I entirely agree with your idea about the side of music to do with its commonality across human societies not requiring education. Yes, people can passively engage with music from other cultures, maybe learn very much about it. But one person cannot intuit all there is to know. With it comes a world of meaning, knowledge, history, etc. that is worthy of study as much as many other disciplines. Casual engagement with almost anything, and I’m not just talking about music now, can’t always match up to an education. An education brings with it the best that has been thought and said by countless generations before us. To assume I could ‘just pick it up on my own’ demeans and ignores all of that. If I’m going to take that approach, why bother going to school at all? Surely I could just ‘pick up’ advanced mathematics by doing some sums at home?

    • Hi HB – that’s not what I was meaning. At all! 🙂

      What I was saying was that people *do* engage highly with music, especially in their formative years, *whether or not they have music education*. This is not the case with many other school subjects. Kids don’t get together and jam with their friends about chemistry they way they jam with their friends playing musical instruments, for example.

      Much of what it means to be a musical human being around the world does not involve classroom music education. But the fact this is so is not an argument to NOT teach music in classrooms! I’m not sure why you’re taking it this way!

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